EFG London Jazz Festival Review:
I first went to see guitarist Bill Frisell playing at some point near the end of the 1980s. It was at the long-lamented Bass Clef jazz club run by veteran bass player Peter Ind in a pre-commodified Hoxton Square. As with this EFG London Jazz Festival outing, Frisell was playing a solo show – he was an elfin figure dancing between effects pedals and an Echoplex tape delay creating ambient waves of sound that washed over the listener with occasional jarring bursts of dissonance and distortion. I knew Frisell work from his work on a multitude of records on Manfred Eichner’s ECM record label as a collaborator with a range of artists including Jan Garbarek, Paul Motian and Joe Lovano. I loved these records with a passion (and still do) and much of that is to do with Frisell’s pointillist textures that were a refreshing antidote to the macho posturing of so much jazz of that period. Bill then re-invented himself as the love-child of Robert Fripp and Dick Dale taking ownership of the guitar ‘twang’ of classic rock’n roll as well as making forays into folk and bluegrass. With reworkings of the repertoire of artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Madonna, Charles Ives and John Lennon, Frisell embraced melody whilst simultaneously mapping a deconstructed and decaying sonic Americana.
The new album is entitled Music Is and is released on OKeh/Sony Music Masterworks and is a collection of originals including reworkings of tunes from his earlier ECM albums such as the classic 1985 disk Rambler. This EFG London Jazz Festival performance that I’m reviewing is also a solo show that promises a mix of new material as well as highlights from across Frisell’s career. On stage Frisell still cuts a reclusive figure who only communicates to the audience through his music, segueing organically in and out of tunes. He is seated these days but his feet still tapdance gracefully across the enabling technology. The Cadogan Hall is the perfect space for this concert with its chamber acoustic affording Frisell’s palette of spectral textures a full sonic spectrum.
Highlights from the concert included a gorgeous and further developed take on Pretty Stars taken from the new record. Built upon a major pentatonic scale-based folk melody Bill Frisell built a gorgeous web of sound. But in his work, there is always darkness around the corner. Winslow Homer is best described as a tritone blues with a mesmerising off-kilter vamp and sampled riffs reappearing at half and double speed up and down the octave.
A plangent take on Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life channelled the ennui of the original but from a less decadent emotional viewpoint, and the bombast of John Barry’s Bond theme song for Goldfinger was presented in a miniaturised but no less potent form. What The World Needs Now Is Love from the 2005 Nonesuch album Further East/Further West was a gentle take on Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s saccharine classic but of course ended with a distorted and dystopian vision.
It takes a great artist to be able to hold an audience absolutely entranced for 90 minutes. Transporting us through a series of cathartic emotional states the almost embarrassingly unassuming Bill Frisell manages this triumphantly without any backup. Moving to the acoustic guitar for an encore of his elegiac version of the Beatles In My Life I reflected that this was soft musical power of the highest order.